What Is Ethology?

The field of ethology is the biological study of animal behaviors, both instinctive and learned, in nature. It is said to have established that these behaviors, just as physical traits, have been shaped by natural selection in the course of evolution. One of the two main founders of the field was Nikolaas (sometimes known as Niko) Tinbergen, who in 1907 published The Study of Instinct, which has been called ethology’s first real text, and credited with basically defining the field’s identity.

The Study of Instinct has been described by the American Psychological Association as “an attempt at an organization of the ethological problems into a coherent whole. This applies especially to the problems of the causes underlying instinctive behavior.” The same page states that Tinbergen’s principal aims were…

(1) to elucidate the hierarchical nature of the system of causal relations, and to stress the paramount importance of recognizing the different levels of integration; and (2) to bring ethology into contact with neurophysiology.

Things went along smoothly for several decades until 1953, when comparative psychologist Daniel Lehrman launched some serious criticism at Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, the field’s other founder. He thought their simple behavioral models were misleading and potentially dangerous to any possibility of correct understanding. In Lehrman’s view, innate behavior was a flawed premise. An uncredited encyclopedia writer explains the psychologist’s position:

There was no evidence for a single causal background of similar behavior patterns in different species. There was no evidence for any underlying neuro-physiological mechanisms, which in any case were likely to be different between species.

The article goes on to say that Tinbergen agreed with many of his critic’s points, conceding that there had been much oversimplification of the basic ideas. Meanwhile, he, along with others, had become more interested in applying the lessons of ethology to human behavior and problems. In 1968, he delivered an important lecture titled “On War and Peace in Animals and Man,” which was then published in the journal Science…

[…] and created much discussion about whether comparisons of human and animal behavior were permissible. Tinbergen compared animal group territories with those of people and pointed out the malfunction of our “innate” appeasement gestures when long-range weapons were being used. He urged scientists not blithely to apply animal results to people.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Study of Instinct,” APA.org, undated
Source: “Nikolaas Tinbergen,” uncredited, undated
Image by ePi.Longo/CC BY-SA 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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